Is Your Office Making You Sick?

Chemicals applied to furniture and carpeting aren't doing anything to keep you healthy at work.

February 18, 2014

When you think air pollution, you probably think smokestacks in remote countries—not the furniture in your office, right? Well, get this: Thirty Boston office workers in buildings that were new, recently renovated, or had no recent construction, had perfluorinated chemicals, or PFCs—toxic chemicals applied to carpets and furniture to repel stains and dirt—in their blood samples, a recent study finds.

Workers who spent their time in new buildings showed the highest levels of the chemicals, and each added hour in the office was associated with a 2 percent increase in the amount of PFCs in the blood. Should you be worried? "We don't know for sure that being exposed to these chemicals at these concentrations causes health problems, but there is evidence that it might," says lead study researcher Tom Webster, ScD.


PFCs are used in more ways than just as a stain and dirt repellent in office furniture. They're also used to manufacture nonstick cookware, and fast-food wrappers, microwave popcorn bags, pizza boxes, and even butter wrappers are impregnated with them to keep grease from permeating the packaging. Past studies have linked high levels of the chemicals to attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in children, and to infertility, thyroid problems, and high cholesterol in adults. Not only that, but PFCs applied to furniture emit the carcinogen formaldehyde as they break down. "These studies are not definitive, but they are concerning," Webster adds.

The office environment has really slipped through the cracks in terms of regulations, says Gina M. Solomon, MD, MPH, a senior scientist for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "There aren't any laws or inspections regulating indoor air quality except in very industrial environments," she says.

You also probably don't have much control over your office furniture, the carpeting, or much of anything else in your office. So here are some tips to keep yourself healthy and your office as unpolluted as possible.

• Keep it clean. Along with PFCs, flame-retardant chemicals—PBDEs and Tris—are present in some furniture and carpet padding, and they hide in dust particles. One form of tris was banned from use in children's pajamas in the 1970s because it's a carcinogen. Dust laced with these chemicals lands on your keyboard, in your food, and directly on your body. Give your office a good dusting with a damp cloth once a week to cut down on dust, and wash your hands frequently. One study found that simply washing your hands more than four times a day could cut your levels of both PFCs and flame retardants threefold.

• Get some fresh air. Generally, outdoor air quality is much better than indoor air quality, Solomon says. An office can be filled with excess carbon dioxide from people breathing all day, she adds. (A similar effect to breathing in and out of a paper bag.) And while we’re not talking dangerous levels of carbon dioxide, the lack of fresh air can leave you feeling dull in the head or dizzy. Open a window, take your lunch outside, or take a 15-minute walk outside for a break. Carbon dioxide levels in your body will normalize within a few minutes of fresh air, she says.

• BYO lunch. Keep from adding to your body's levels of PFCs by avoiding fast food as much as you can. And rather than buy microwave popcorn for that mid-afternoon snack, learn how to make your own microwave popcorn in a brown-paper bag.

• Buy carefully. What you want: stain-repellent-free furniture and carpets. Why? It may sound convenient to have furniture you can clean with nothing more than a wet rag, or carpets that never stain. But protect yourself, and your fellow office workers, by asking furniture manufacturers not to apply those stain- and water-repellant finishes. If it's a big issue, consider installing hard-wood flooring and look for materials, such as leather, that can be cleaned easily with a damp cloth.

• Decorate with plants. Plants can be an office worker's best friends. NASA has found that certain plants are incredibly effective at reducing formaldehyde emitted by PFC-treated furniture, as well as other pollutants like ozone emitted by office equipment. Need ideas? We've got a good list of the 7 best air-cleaning plants.